Expressing witness through armchair campaigning in the time of COVID-19 lockdown, summer 2020

A British Friend and conference interpreter ( for English, French, and German ) Ruth Lambert, reflects on the events that passed during her summer 2020 lockdown from the outbreak of a COVID-19 in comparison to 100 years ago when Friends first gathered to publicly oppose all war.

The place where I sit with my feet up, convalescing from right index finger injury during “Lockdown”, is the place.  Here I first experienced Campaign for Nuclear Disamament’s 75th commemorations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quaker Peace and Social Witness’s Summer Series on Build Back Better: Can you Teach Peace, and Spiritual Activism in THIS Moment, Green Transition Thinking, Global Human Movement, City of Sanctuary, Black Lives Matter, weekly House Group, Sunday Meeting for Worship, and more …  It feels as though I’m a lightning conductor, JUST SITTING.  Of course, that’s what we Quakers do, but this summer is different

I sit in Waymouth Cottage, built in 1898 by Caroline Emelia Stephen of The Porch, (born 1835, died 1909).   She’d written Quaker Strongholds in 1890, as well as transformational texts of liberal theology adopted at a decisive Manchester Conference early in 1895.  She wrote about “accepting the solitary life, even if not chosen, and how to seize the master key of life, and turn everything to good account”.

She purposely built Waymouth Cottage for the fresh young non-conformists to gather separately from her, the Quaker in grey with bonnet, “the nun in her own nunnery”.

Upon her death in 1909, Caroline/Aunt Milly left her niece, Virginia Woolf a special legacy of £2,500 with which to write new ways of expressing consciousness.  Caroline Emelia bought the pub on the corner so it could become part of what is now Jesus Lane Quaker Meeting House, Cambridge, United Kingdom.  Her obituary read “ Her life had about it the harmony of a large design”.

So what of today ?  The spot parallel to where Caroline Stephen sat, is where I sit becoming an “armchair campaigner’.  Commemorating 75 years of Victory in Europe Day, I thought of how my Conscientious Objector father must have felt with everyone celebrating the end of WWII, when he was coming out of “Lockdown” imposed by Churchill, who wouldn’t let him travel to take up a scholarship in Illinois studying Soya Beans and their potential to nourish populations in a post-war world.  Sacked from Fyffes Bananas for his conscience not to kill in 1940, he had worked in Friends’ House creating the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) whilst brushing up his schoolboy German, cycling for lessons to a Jewish lady in Golders Green so as to be useful in War’s inevitable aftermath. In 1945 he voyaged against the crowd of returning veterans to carpet-bombed Hannover with the YMCA, and in 1946-7 to Frankfurt with the American Friends Service Committee to build a Neighbourhood Centre/soup kitchen for the brick-cleaning women in that very cold winter (they had no gloves with which to recycle and repurpose those re-building bricks). The Centre was for bringing survivors together and bringing good cheer to their children and the old folks repairing shoes on iron lasts. Family men were quite missing. American and British Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for bringing Relief to the Victims of War in Europe and the Far East, as I remember in my chair on Victory over Japan Day with “Zoom” awareness-raising webinars from the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament.

Now, the Campaign to “Build Back Better”, a campaign in the UK which aims to build back the UK economy while limiting negative environmental impacts, is of the post-Covid essence, seen from that same chair in Waymouth Cottage. There is a call to be ‘movers and shakers’ and the 2020 Call to Conscience for our time asks for:

  • People first, not profits for the few and poverty for the rest.
  • Green retrofit works everywhere to mitigate climate change.
  • Economic shift from extraction/nuclear to generating renewables as a major security investment.
  • Racism having no place anywhere on this planet– it’s the only home for our world family.

The Call to Conscience from our Friends in 1920 was to publicly oppose all war. This summer, FWCC commemorated the 100 year anniversary of our American and British Quakers meeting in London to oppose all War with an online worship. This was a meeting of Quakers all around the world calling in from our armchairs, sofas, kitchen tables, yet gathered through our collective upholding of Friends that came before us. 

More than that, there are still a myriad of Quaker communities world-wide who are still trying to build paradise on earth, for all.  Today we may draw down God’s power, as our Friends did 100 years ago, but this time we have to listen deeper from our solitude from the place where each of us “sit” to understand what our call to conscience is in 2020. 

How will our Friends 100 years from now be remembering us for how we acted today?

Ruth’s words are in response to the Global Online Worship on August 15th 2020: to mark one hundred years since the first All Friends’ Conference in 1920.

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